Sunday. 19.05.2024

Snellman, the man who inspired Finns to be Finns


Johan Vilhelm Snellman was still in self-imposed exile in Germany and Sweden when his future goal became concrete: He wanted to awaken Finnish national consciousness.

More importantly, he wanted to help build the Finnish identity by establishing the dominance of Finnish in literature and administration. He wanted to elevate the status of Finnish from the language of peasants to an internationally-recognised one.

This was in the nineteenth century when Finland was an autonomous grand duchy within the Russian Empire. Both Finnish and Swedish were used in Finland.

However, Finnish was the predominant language, with 85% of the population speaking it as their mother tongue.

By contrast, Swedish was the language of the middle and upper classes, and people in the administration. Farmers and fishermen in some coastal areas spoke it too.

Snellman had an uncompromising attitude towards upgrading the status of Finnish language. He strongly believed that literature written in Finnish was of paramount importance in building a distinct Finnish national identity of the people of Finland.

A Swedish speaker by birth

Even though he was an ardent proponent of raising the status of Finnish language, he himself spoke Swedish. He was born in Stockholm at a time when Finland was still a part of the Swedish kingdom.

Four years after Finland was annexed to the Russian Empire, his family moved to the Finnish town of Kokkola. A year later, his mother died.

After being appointed a lecturer at the Imperial Alexander University (now the University of Helsinki) in 1835, he became popular among students. But his views on academic freedom were not welcomed by the university authorities, who were highly influenced by Russia.

Snellman thus became a dissident and this led to his suspension. He then went into exile.

During his exile in Germany, he was heavily influenced by the Hegelian thoughts, which dominated German universities at the time.

This further solidified his ambition to work for Finnish national awakening.

Journalistic initiatives

Snellman’s popularity increased after his return to Finland in 1842, but he could not resume his university job due to the political climate.


He moved to Kuopio, and became a school headmaster. He launched two newspapers there: Maamiehen Ystävä (Countryman’s Friend) in Finnish and Saima in Swedish.

Maamiehen Ystävä was non-political and the only Finnish language newspaper at the time. The commoners were its target readers.

Saima, however, was for the upper class. It contained audacious arguments for language reforms, with the emphasis on why it was the duty of the Swedish-speaking educated class to embrace Finnish.

It also promoted the idea of establishing Finnish as the language of literature, academic work and statecraft.

The newspapers were helping Snellman achieve two goals simultaneously: enhancing Finnish language skills of the masses and championing the use of Finnish by the Swedish-speaking elites.

Saima caused a widespread stir and was eventually banned in 1846.

Three years later, Snellman returned to Helsinki and became a professor in 1856.

Snellman's petition to Emperor Alexander II led to the official recognition of the Finnish language and to the introduction of Finland's own currency

Meeting the Emperor

Snellman’s linguistic nationalism was still not favoured when he became the minister of finance in the Senate in 1863.

A year earlier, a team of experts submitted a report to the Senate. They made recommendations against changing the language of administration.

But within four months of his appointment, Snellman started pressing for recognition of Finnish language in administration.

He did not stop there, and went as far as arranging a personal meeting with Emperor Alexander II. The tsar was to visit Finland to attend the summer military exercise.

At the Parola army camp, Snellman submitted a petition to the Emperor, seeking monetary reform and Finnish language recognition.

Two days later, Alexander II put his signature on the landmark 1863 language decree. It stated that Swedish would remain the official language, but Finnish would be “on a footing of complete equality with Swedish” in all matters that directly concern the Finnish-speaking part of the population.

There was another clause, which said the decree would be fully operational in 20 years, and officials already having adequate knowledge of Finnish language could start using it upon request.

Furthermore, the Senate was instructed to submit proposals on how to introduce Finnish in judicial and administrative tasks.

A man committed to his mission, Snellman managed to make it happen by bypassing the Senate.

As for the monetary reform part in Snellman’s petition, it led to the introduction of Finland’s own currency, markka, two years later. The markka continued to be the currency until February 2002 when it officially ceased to be a legal tender.

Snellman thus emerged as a prominent figure not only in the spheres of culture and language, but also economy and administration. He was ennobled in 1866.

Leading Fennoman movement

Despite being a senator, he faced staunch opposition because of his adamant stance on officially establishing the Finnish language.

He was forced to resign in 1868 after a dispute with Count Nikolay Adlerberg, the then governor-general of Finland.

Alexander II issuing the language decree was Snellman’s greatest achievement in his Finnish language activism.

It was also a major breakthrough in the Finnish language movement known as the Fennoman movement. Snellman was the leading figure of this movement.

The Fennoman slogan was:

“Swedes we are no longer,

Russians we can never become,

So let us be Finns.”

That is what statesman, academic and philosopher Snellman kept doing despite setbacks – he inspired the people of Finland to be Finns.

Snellman, the man who inspired Finns to be Finns